Monday, April 6, 2020

Ranking the Star Trek Movies -- and The Wrath of Khan Is NOT #1

The other day, I ranked the Star Trek TV series. Now, I'm going to rank the movies. All 10 of them.

No. Not 13. The J.J. Abrams movies don't count. They may carry the name, but they are not Star Trek. There are four lights, and there are ten films.

10. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, 1989. Okay, we got it: In Star Trek, the even-numbered movies are good; the odd-numbered movies are not. This one wasn't helped by the fact that, after Leonard Nimoy directed the 2 previous films, William Shatner wanted to direct one.

He never directed in Trek again. As time, as the various Trek TV series, went on, we saw episodes directed by Jonathan Frakes, and also by Nimoy, his son Adam, Patrick Stewart, Gates McFadden, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Avery Brooks, Alexander Siddig, René Auberjonois, Andrew Robinson, Tim Russ, Robert Duncan McNeill, Roxann Dawson and Robert Picardo. Between them, they directed 105 episodes, topped by Burton with 28. Frakes directed 21, and also directed the 8th and 9th movies. But Shatner? Never again.

Was this movie that bad? It didn't have to be. The idea of the Enterprise crew meeting God -- or someone, or something, claiming to be the God of the Bible -- had been kicked around since Trek creator Gene Roddenberry considered the 1st movie in the mid-1970s. But, when finally tried here, it was not well-executed, and, in the end, it was unsatisfying.

Seeing Spock forced to choose between his blood brother (well, half-brother), Sybok (Laurence Luckibill), and his brother-in-arms, Kirk, was a great idea. But the campfire scene near the beginning was stupid, and so was the idea of pilot Sulu and navigator Chekov getting lost. And did we really have to turn the Enterprise-A into a joke that had yet to "earn her name"? (Of course, she would.)

The supporting characters? Their situations were mixed. Chekov got to sit in the Captain's chair for the 1st time. Sulu's piloting skills were on display. But Scotty was alternately terrific and silly: That bump on the head should have been beneath him, or so to speak. And Uhura, well, maybe it was exploitative for her to do a nude scene, and at age 56, Nichelle Nichols had to be in shadow. But she made it work, and it was clear she was in control of the situation.

On a scale of 0 to 10, this film had the potential to be a 9. With a bit less silliness, it could have been a 7. Instead, it was a 4. Still, it was better than any of the J.J. Abrams films. With that in mind, let's move on.

9. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979. Once people saw the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with all its flaws, people saw Star Trek: The Original Series' red skies, papier-mâché boulders and rubber-masked aliens, and realized, "Hey, they could have done a lot better."

So when Paramount Pictures gave Gene Roddenberry the big budget to make a movie around Star Trek, he... copied 2001. The bad parts. The weird parts. The long, wordless, classical-music-backed montages that made the film at least 15 minutes longer than it needed to be. The hard-to-define enemy. The weird new lifeform at the end. And, of course, one thing 2001 didn't have: The new uniforms, described as "space pajamas."

The length, 2 hours and 12 minutes, led to this film being nicknamed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture. The trip into a "heart of darkness," and Francis Ford Coppola's also-long film earlier in the year, led to this film being nicknamed A Spockalypse Now. And V'Ger's similarity to the robotic opponent in the 1967 episode "The Changeling" led to this film being nicknamed Where Nomad Has Gone Before.

If you didn't like this movie, here's a suggestion: Just fast-forward through the montages. You'll save about 20 minutes, and the movie will be a lot better.

8. Star Trek: Insurrection, a.k.a. Star Trek IX, 1998. Yes, it's an odd-numbered movie. But the biggest problem is that it was a movie. When you wait 2 years to see the next movie, you want it to be terrific. Insurrection wasn't. Had it been a 2-part episode of ST:TNG, it would have felt a lot better.

The good parts include continuing the process, begun on Deep Space Nine (the film takes place right after the end of the Dominion War) and "completed" in Star Trek: Picard, of Starfleet drifting away from its ideals. The good parts also include some humor, Riker showing his space combat chops, the restoration of the Riker-Troi romance, a rare but good love story for Picard, and the fight for an ideal that Picard thinks Starfleet has chosen to abandon.

The bad parts include a genuine threat from an enemy we had never seen before. Had we already known the Son'a, and how dangerous they could be, it would have been different. Instead, this was their introduction, so it was like, "Who the hell are these guys?" And since DS9 was coming to an end, Voyager was still in the Delta Quadrant, and Picard hasn't yet mentioned them, we've never seen them again. So it's like, "How big of a threat can they be?" So this was a very unsatisfying film.

7. Star Trek: Nemesis, a.k.a. Star Trek X, 2002. The last of the TNG crew films (so far) seemed to break the pattern: It was an even-numbered film, and it was horrible. That's the conventional wisdom.

Well, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Just as The Search for Spock, Generations and Insurrection are better than they get credit for, so is Nemesis. The big argument against this film is Data's "death" (a word that, after Picard, we can now put in quotation marks). People hated it. They tend to overlook that it is a sacrifice every bit as comparable as Spock's in The Wrath of Khan, completing the arc of the character being TNG's analogue to Spock, even if Spock had spent much of his life rejecting Data's quest to be more human.

The crew of the Enterprise-E is facing a threat that is even worse than that of Khan, the TOS-era Klingons, or the Borg, and more intentional and insidious than the comparable one posed by V'Ger: Total annihilation at the hands of renegade Romulans. And, with a great deal of thought and ingenuity -- including Picard mirroring Riker in "The Best of Both Worlds" by out-thinking a "Picard" who claims to know his every move -- they beat it. I liked this movie, even with its downbeat ending.

6. Star Trek: Generations, 1994. As the baton was handed off to the Next Generation crew, the Roman numerals were dropped, so this would not be known as Star Trek VII.

Seeing that the new Enterprise-B was commanded by Captain John Harriman, and that he was played by Alan Ruck, only 8 years removed from playing Cameron Frye, the neurosis-saddled best friend in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, one could be forgiven for thinking of a catchphrase from Star Wars: "I've got a bad feeling about this!" And we never did see Harriman redeem himself. (I'm choosing to not accept the 2006 fanmade miniseries Star Trek: Of Gods and Men as canon.)

Of the original crew, only Shatner (Kirk), James Doohan (Scotty) and Walter Koenig (Chekov) agreed to return, although Jacqueline Kim played Ensign Demora Sulu, taking her father's place as Helm Officer of the Enterprise. The story leading to what appeared to be Kirk's death was a good one, even if it made Harriman and his crew look weak by comparison.

We jumped 78 years to see... a "tall ship" named Enterprise, sailing on the ocean, manned by Picard and his senior officers, dressed as Napoleonic Era sailors? Holy Holodeck, Batman! Okay, it was cute, now get on with the story.

The movie tries to be TWOK, by making both Picard and Kirk alternately cheat and face death. And this ends up not working. It makes Malcolm McDowell's villain, Dr. Tolian Soran, somewhat sympathetic, while reminding us that he is still incredibly evil and must be stopped. But the fact that it takes Kirk and Picard, Starfleet's 2 greatest Captains ever -- we didn't yet know about Jonathan Archer -- to do it is wrecked by how clumsily it was carried out.

And Kirk's death scene was really unworthy of the character, right down to the dumb joke it inspired: "After all the times there was the Captain on the Bridge, we had the bridge on the Captain."

There was a warning in this film, though, even if it took 26 years for us to realize it. Kirk tells Picard never to give up the Captain's chair on the Enterprise: "While you're there, you can make a difference!" As we have now seen in Star Trek: Picard, 14 years after that sequence (from his perspective), he gave up that chair, in order to make a new difference, and it didn't work, and he fell into a depression that lasted another 14 years, before the events of the new show.

Does that retroactive warning carry resonance now? Absolutely. Does it make this film better? Slightly. Enough to make it a good film? Well, it's not a bad film. But it could have been considerably better.

5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, 1984. After the box-office and emotional success of TWOK, this was going to be a letdown, no matter what, even if we all knew that Spock was going to be restored to life by the end. Although we didn't expect the destruction of the Constitution-class USS Enterprise, which, if you think about it, was the greatest character in Star Trek, over even Kirk and Spock.

(Unlike the death of Spock, a twist every bit as big as finding out the Darth Vader was actually Luke Skywalker's father 2 years earlier, that gut-punch had not been leaked before the release. Promos said, "Join us, for the final voyage of the Enterprise." But we didn't expect to see the old girl blown up.)

And there were some ridiculous things. The "katra" concept, the deus ex machina idea that went on to restore Spock's life. The alien with whom McCoy tries to negotiate a ride to the Genesis Planet. Killing off Dr. David Marcus (Merritt Buttrick), the brilliant young scientist that Kirk found out in the previous film was his son. Kirk's reaction, "You Klingon bastard, you killed my son!" The fight between Kirk and Klingon Commander Kruge. And the Vulcan priestesses wearing what appear to be negligees. Given the usual modest dress of Vulcans, this was highly illogical.

And Christopher Lloyd, as Kruge, trying to out-ham Shatner, which even Ricardo Montalban hadn't been able to do, though God knows he tried. Although I have to admit, it produced a great exchange: Kirk: "Look around you! This planet is destroying itself!" Kruge: "Yes! Exhilarating, isn't it?" Surely, that role, rather than that of Jim Ignatowski on Taxi, was what got Lloyd cast as Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future.

But this movie gets a bit of a bad rap. While Chekov got to scream in each of the 1st 2 movies, and he had a big role in TWOK, most of the supporting cast had pretty much been little more than that: Supporting. This time, Scotty, Sulu, and even Uhura got to be a part of the heroic process. As Spock's father, Ambassador Sarek, Mark Lenard had great interactions with Kirk and the Vulcan elder T'Lar, played by the legendary Judith Anderson.

And, of course, continuing the theme of TWOK, Kirk is still facing the consequences of his various actions over the years, and facing death as never before. "At what cost?" Sarek asks. "Your ship. Your son." But Kirk understands, illogical though it may be: "If I hadn't, the cost would have been my soul."

TSFS was a letdown, but it is not a bad movie.

4. Star Trek: First Contact, a.k.a. Star Trek VIII, 1996. Not only is this easily the best of the films with the Next Generation crew, it is their Wrath of Khan, because it forces Picard to deal with his experiences with the Borg. They hurt him more deeply than Kirk had by anything, even his previous experiences with personal defeat and personal loss.

And watching Dr. Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard) show him that he's turning into Moby-Dick's Captain Ahab, followed by him showing her that Ahab was fighting for personal vengeance and that he's fighting for that and more, showed Patrick Stewart at his finest.

Showing the aftermath of the Star Trek Chronology's World War III -- a nuclear exchange in 2053 resulting in 600 million dead, as opposed to Spock's earlier claim that the war killed 37 million, or roughly half as many as actually died in the real-life World War II -- leading to the 1st Warp 1 flight finally gave Star Trek an "origin story." That was nice, but at a horrible cost. Would Gene Roddenberry, who had died 5 years before the film's release, have accepted that needing such a cataclysm was needed to bring humanity together to achieve such a utopia? Only he knew for sure.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the film centered around the Borg Queen's attempt at the psychological seduction of Data. She was willing to give him what he said he always wanted, the chance to be fully human. He saw through that, knowing that anyone who served the Borg could not be fully human. But, more than that, he showed that, because he wasn't fully human, he was incorruptible. Maybe he was better off, no matter what he wanted. Certainly, the people of the Federation were better off for him not being fully human.

3. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982. What? Not Number 1? No. I will explain.

The stakes for this film were huge, after the failure of ST:TMP. Director Nicholas Meyer liked the idea of revisiting "Space Seed," an episode of the original series, in which Ricardo Montalban played Khan Noonien Singh, a threat from the 20th Century. (A long story, in more ways than one.) Kirk thought he had ended Khan's threat.

He was wrong, and he has to confront that threat aboard the Enterprise, with mixed results. Part of the dynamic of this film is that, unlike in the 1967 episode, where Kirk and Khan physically fought, Shatner and Montalban were never together, only communicating across reaches of space, including Shatner's iconic "Khaaaan!" yell -- which, as we would soon learn, was a ruse.

Even more iconic is Spock's sacrifice, which becomes one of the greatest death scenes ever filmed, in any genre: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." And one of the greatest funeral scenes ever filmed, with Kirk's eulogy for his First Officer and best friend followed by Scotty playing "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes as a prelude to Spock's body, with a photon torpedo tube serving as his coffin, being fired onto the Genesis Planet.

The theme of the movie is the changing of Kirk's character. All through the 3 seasons of the original series, and the 1st movie, he's a bold, sometimes even reckless, commander, a man who once proudly (in "By Any Other Name") proclaimed, "Risk is our business." And, because Hollywood, especially 1960s TV, trucked in happy endings, he always got away with it.

In this film, it's even mentioned that the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a test of character given to Cadets at Starfleet Academy, an example of which begins the film, had only been beaten once, about 30 years earlier, by Kirk himself. He reveals that he cheated.

He had always cheated death. He had never truly faced death, until losing Spock -- "No, not like this," he admits. Clearly, if it had been himself making the sacrifice, whatever physical pain he felt, the sense of loss would have been less than it was with Spock. Finally, after 30 or so years in Starfleet, the bill for Kirk's successful gambling with life and death had come due.

That is what makes TWOK, for so many Trekkies, the greatest film of all: Not just the great story, and the great adventure, against the man Spock, in STID, would describe as "the most dangerous enemy the Enterprise ever faced"; but the development of Kirk's character, and Spock's, too. It was a recognition that Spock was truly the more popular character, and also a recognition that Kirk had done so much, and had faced so little hardship, and now had to face it.

Of course, this isn't true. Anyone who saw the 2nd pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," knows that not only did his original First Officer, Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood), die, but that Kirk had to kill Mitchell himself. Anyone who saw the episode "Obsession" knows that Kirk bore some guilt over an incident on the USS Farragut 11 years earlier. Anyone who saw the episode "Operation: Annihilate!" saw Kirk find the dead bodies of his brother Sam and his sister-in-law Aurelan, and almost also lose his nephew Peter.

And he lost a lot of crewmen: The fanmade series Star Trek Continues, which pretended to finish the five-year mission, had Kirk, played by series creator and main writer Vic Mignogna, admit that he'd lost 73 people under his command in those 5 years, a number that was about to rise to 75.

So it's not really fair to say that Kirk "never had to face death." In fact, when he had to sacrifice the Enterprise late in TSFS, he asks, "My God, Bones, what have I done?" McCoy tells him, "What you had to do, what you've always done: You've turned death into a fighting chance to live."

Which is what Spock did near the end of TWOK. Half-human and half-Vulcan, he was able to reconcile his human need to save his crewmates with his Vulcan way of figuring out the most logical way to do it. Kirk understood: "Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most... human." That line, and the sacrifice that inspired it, were both so great, the guy who runs the YouTube page CinemaSins took "sin points" off for both.

So, yes, TWOK is a great movie, not just a great Star Trek movie or a great science fiction movie. But, I submit to you, that it is not the best Star Trek movie.

2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986. Concluding the trilogy that began with TWOK, Star Trek has an adventure where they travel back in time, to what was then our present. The producers always liked that, because it allowed them to use already-present studio sets and location shots, and save money on set building and special effects.

It was fun watching the Enterprise's "Magnificent Seven" struggle with our era: The need for money, the struggle with public transportation, the need to solve their 23rd Century problem with 20th Century materials and methods, and Kirk eating pizza (crust-first) and drinking beer, as if those things aren't still around in the late 23rd Century. (Surely, they were.)

The environmental message was a bit preachy, especially in the Reagan Eighties. But, you know what, we needed to be preached to. We'd spent 2 movies watching Kirk deal with the consequences of his actions over 30 years. And even if we hadn't, we deserved to have Kirk, Spock, and marine biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) lecture us on how to deal with the consequences of our actions over 300 years.

Finally, we got something we didn't get in any of the 1st 3 Trek films: A very satisfying ending. TMP's ending was weird, TWOK's was depressing (if fitting), and TSFS's was half-uplifting and half-depressing. It had been 27 years since Star Trek gave us a definitive, no "Yeah, but... " win for the good guys. And we got it.

How good was this movie? My grandmother, who was already 42 years old when Star Trek debuted in 1966, was not a fan of it. But even she liked this movie. It may not have been better-made than TWOK in terms of writing, drama or special effects, but it didn't have to be better-made. It was better.

It also established the pattern, which held until 2002: In Star Trek, the even-numbered movies are good; the odd-numbered movies, not so much.

1. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, 1991. Designed to be the valedictory for the original crew, this is the best Trek film of them all. It was a story worthy of the man quoted throughout its script, William Shakespeare.

Like TWOK, Kirk has to face the consequences of his actions. And, by now, we were into the 5th season of The Next Generation, so we knew that we had to reconcile some things, including the fact that, by the time that show began -- 71 years after the events of this movie -- the Klingon Empire had ceased to be the Federation's marquee enemy. And, being the original series' analogue for the Soviet Union, we had an allegory for that country's collapse and reform into the Russian Federation, and the end of the Cold War.

But, just as some people didn't want the Cold War to end, so, too, were there people -- on at least 3 sides, as it turned out, counting the Romulan Empire, the original series' analogue for Red China -- who had an interest in the Federation-Klingon conflict continuing.

That could have been done in a very hackneyed way. But, with Nicholas Meyer, director of TWOK, returning to direct, and also writing the screenplay with Denny Martin Flinn (and contributions by Nimoy), they avoided the pitfalls and forged a great story.

This movie had, if not "it all," then, a lot. A detective story. A prison break. Redemption for TSFS's maligned USS Excelsior, now commanded by Captain Hikaru Sulu (finally getting a command and a first name). DeForest Kelley as McCoy and George Takei as Sulu each giving the best performance of his career. Great performances as Klingons by David Warner and Shatner's old friend from Shakespeare productions in their shared hometown of Montreal, Christopher Plummer. A thrilling space battle. A good resolution of the film's underlying conflict. And a fine "commencement address" by Shatner at the end.

The Undiscovered County, not The Wrath of Khan, is the best Star Trek film.

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